Tamil Nadu

Tragedy and farce

Print edition : March 17, 2017

V.K. Sasikala, O. Panneerselvam and Edappadi K. Palaniswami at a meeting at the AIADMK headquarters in Chennai on February 5. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Panneerselvam being welcomed at a function to commemorate Jayalalithaa’s 69th birth anniversary at R.K. Nagar in Chennai on February 24. Photo: R.K. Nagar/PTI

Deepa Jayakumar, Jayalalithaa’s niece, at the launch of her political outfit, MGR Amma Deepa Peravai, in Chennai on February 24. Photo: R. Senthil Kumar/PTI

AIADMK deputy general secretary T.T.V. Dinakaran and Sasikala on a poster in Chennai. Photo: Ilangovan Rajasekaran

In an action-filled fortnight, the Supreme Court sends V.K. Sasikala to prison but her family takes control of the ruling party in Tamil Nadu and her Chief Minister wins a trust vote in a riotous environment. More fireworks are on the cards.

THE first hint of trouble in the special session of the Tamil Nadu Assembly convened on February 18 for Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) to prove his majority came in a statement from the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) just a few hours before the voting. The DMK, which has 89 MLAs in the 234-member House (233 after Jayalalithaa’s death), urged Speaker P. Dhanapal to go in for “secret voting” since “the situation today is politically atypical”. It justified its demand by saying that the AIADMK was split in two, with caretaker Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam and 10 MLAs rebelling against party general secretary V.K. Sasikala and the latter “detaining” the remaining 122 MLAs of that party in a beachfront resort at Koovathur, some 70 kilometres from Chennai, for more than a week. It termed this practice “undemocratic and unconstitutional”.

“The situation today is extraordinary, with both factions accusing each other of horse-trading, and hence secret voting alone will ensure justice,” DMK working president M.K. Stalin said. The Panneerselvam faction, which had been demanding this since the announcement on the trust vote was made, also felt it might be beneficial to it if fence sitters in the Sasikala camp voted according to “their conscience and as per people’s wishes”. The DMK and the Panneerselvam group accused Sasikala of holding the MLAs “hostage” in the private resort (story on page 27).

The vote of confidence was necessitated by the swearing-in of a new government, headed by Palaniswami, who was propped up by the Sasikala group following her failed bid to make it to the Chief Minister’s post. Panneerselvam had resigned as Chief Minister to make way for Sasikala after she had been elected AIADMK legislature party leader earlier (on February 5). It was Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5 in hospital ( Frontline, January 6) that resulted in Panneerselvam being sworn in as Chief Minister later that night itself.

However, on February 7 night, after a highly dramatised 40-minute visit to the Jayalalithaa memorial on the Marina beach, he raised the banner of revolt against Sasikala, accusing her and her family members of “insulting and intimidating” him. The very next morning Sasikala packed off her MLAs to the beach resort and a stand-off ensued between the two groups until February 18, the day Palaniswami won the trust vote in the Assembly.

Sasikala’s plan to become Chief Minister was thwarted by the February 14 Supreme Court verdict in the disproportionate assets case, which upheld the order of the trial court in Karnataka which had convicted and sentenced her and two of her relatives to four years’ imprisonment (story on page 40). To counter Panneerselvam’s revolt, Palaniswami was elected legislature party leader on Sasikala’s instructions on February 14 and sworn in two days later as Chief Minister by Governor-in-charge Ch. Vidyasagar Rao, who gave him 15 days to prove his majority. But Palaniswami chose to seek a vote of confidence on February 18 itself.

After all, with the DMK making it clear that it would vote against the government and the Panneerselvam camp waiting anxiously on the sidelines, Palaniswami could not afford to lose any more MLAs. That the MLAs continued to stay in the resort even after he formed the government had created for him a difficult situation and, more than that, an embarrassment of sorts. Reports claimed that each Minister had been assigned the task of escorting four or five of these MLAs to the Assembly on the day of the trust vote directly from the resort and through Gate No. 10, not the main entrance, of St. George’s Fort, where the Assembly hall is located, in order to avoid the waiting media.

The Congress, a strong of ally of the DMK and which has eight MLAs, got directions from the party high command, just two hours prior to the trust vote, that they should toe the DMK line of demanding a secret ballot. Besides Panneerselvam, MLAs from his camp S. Semmalai and former Minister K. Pandiarajan, Congress Legislature Party leader K.R. Ramasamy, the lone Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) member K.A.M. Muhammed Abubacker, and AIADMK MLA from Mylapore R. Nataraj, who supported Panneerselvam at the behest of voters in his constituency, spoke in favour of a secret ballot, saying that an extraordinary situation prevailed in the State.

Pandemonium in House

But the Speaker refused to yield to the demand and said there was no provision for a secret ballot in the Assembly rules and instead asked for a division, an open voting practice in which the MLAs were made to sit in blocs and stand up to be manually counted on the basis of their choice. He said that he had powers under Assembly Rule 19(1) to do so and asked the MLAs to vote without fear. But the opposition members knew it for what it was—an empty promise. The 11 MLAs of the Panneerselvam faction were allotted seats among the AIADMK members though party general secretary Sasikala had expelled both Panneerselvam and Pandiarajan from the party.

As soon as the Assembly convened, the DMK members insisted on secret voting and when the Speaker did not agree, gheraoed him, broke a table, pulled out his mike and shoved and pulled him and even occupied his chair, for which Stalin later expressed regret to the Speaker, castigated his MLAs, and asked them to maintain dignity and decorum. Stalin, however, went on to say that “undue focus” on such incidents would only cloud the serious issue the Speaker should have handled with diligence. The DMK claimed that a “selective leak of an edited video clipping” on the ruckus in the Assembly was made to defame the party. However, other political parties, including the AIADMK (Sasikala faction), called it “an assault on democracy” by the DMK legislators.

Marshals escorted the Speaker out of the Assembly hall after he adjourned the House up to 1 p.m. When the House met again, he told the Assembly that he had been humiliated. “My shirt was torn and I was humiliated because I hailed from an oppressed and disadvantaged social group. It was Amma [referring to Jayalalithaa] who gave me this exalted position,” he said. (He belongs to the Arundhathiyar community, a Scheduled Caste.) Then he ordered the eviction of all the 88 DMK members (DMK chief M. Karunanidhi was absent owing to illness).

A posse of marshals, among whom were a few senior Indian Police Service and other police officers masquerading as marshals, entered the House and physically lifted each and every DMK member out of the House. Congress members and the lone IUML member walked out in protest. The Speaker adjourned the House until 3 p.m. And with no member in the opposition benches when the House resumed after 3 p.m., the Speaker asked Palaniswami to move the motion. After going through the process of open division voting, he declared that Palaniswami had won the trust vote 122 to 11 and adjourned the House sine die.

Earlier, Stalin told the House that the police had forced him and the party’s deputy leader, S. Duraimurugan, to walk to Fort St. George from the War Memorial, a distance of two kilometres, under the scorching sun, as their cars were stopped from going any further. He said it was a breach of privilege. He also said the police entered the House and beat DMK MLAs before evicting them. Panneerselvam insisted that the confidence vote should be taken up again at a later date after the MLAs who were detained in the Koovathur resort returned to their constituencies to interact with the people and party cadre. He said that the mood of the people was “against Sasikala and her cronies”.

The DMK’s J. Anbazhagan criticised the urgency with which the confidence vote process was conducted and said that a “benami” government of Sasikala was trying to grab power. After winning the confidence motion, Palaniswami told the media that the “vow taken by our party’s general secretary Sasikala [at the Jayalalithaa memorial before going to prison in Karnataka] has been fulfilled”. Panneerselvam claimed that “Adharma has won and dharma has been temporarily eclipsed”.

(The disturbances in the House were a cause for concern but could not be described as “unprecedented violence” as a section of the media described them. The last time Tamil Nadu witnessed a floor test was in 1988 and involved AIADMK factions led by Chief Minister V.N. Janaki, party founder M.G. Ramachandran’s (MGR) widow, and Jayalalithaa. On January 28, 1988, the Assembly, in fact, witnessed unprecedented violence when members were voting on the confidence motion moved by Janaki. MLAs who supported Jayalalithaa (33) and Janaki (97) exchanged blows, threw aerated water bottles and indulged in other forms of violence. Outsiders barged in and scores of lawmakers sustained bleeding injuries. The then Speaker declared that Janaki had won the vote of confidence, though after two days, the government was dismissed by Governor S.L. Khurana and President’s Rule was imposed. The DMK, with 20 MLAs, kept away.)

Demand to ‘nullify’ trust vote

Immediately after the ruckus in the Assembly, the DMK members, led by Stalin, met the Governor and asked him to “nullify” the vote of confidence so as to “protect the spirit of democracy and the Constitution”. While returning from Raj Bhavan, Stalin sprang a surprise by staging a dharna near the Gandhi statue on the Marina, calling it “a black day for democracy”. The police arrested him and others and released them later in the evening. The DMK organised a State-wide hunger strike on February 22 and also took the issue to the Madras High Court.

Stalin later told the media that the Speaker had ignored their pleas for secret ballot and had not taken into account the procedural lapses. A DMK MLA pointed out that the confidence motion was moved twice on the floor of the Assembly. “Once the first motion lapsed since the House was repeatedly adjourned, the second one could be moved only after proper announcement and also after a specific time frame. On the same day, Palaniswami moved the motion twice, which is against the rules of the House,” he said. He further said that the confidence motion that was upheld in 1988 was declared void by the then Governor since the two factions of the ruling party alone were present in the House at the time of voting.

Rarely have the people of Tamil Nadu had to face such a series of sudden changes in the ruling party as in the past few months—from the shock over the demise of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to the seething anger over the Sasikala family taking over the reins of the party. With the infighting becoming intense, the mood turned ugly, leaving cadres and the general public, who had given its mandate to the AIADMK for the second consecutive time in the 2016 elections, in despair. “The veil of secrecy that surrounds Jayalalithaa’s death, they say, disturbs them. Besides, Sasikala and her extended family’s continuing stay in Veda Nilayam, the residence of Jayalalithaa, also makes them uneasy,” said a senior party functionary in the Panneerselvam camp.

Panneerselvam’s makeover

The cadres and the public at large had no illusions about Panneerselvam until he underwent a sudden image makeover as a “good guy” from that of a minion within the party in the not-too-distant past. Party cadres sincerely believed that Jayalalithaa had chosen him as her political heir. They supported him when he as Chief Minister declared that an inquiry commission would be constituted to probe the death of Jayalalithaa and announced that Veda Nilayam would be made a memorial for her.

The cadres also saw Palaniswami as a “Sasikala proxy” and believed that he would not dare violate her brief. “In fact, the brutal hold of Sasikala and her family over the party and the government in the State is a dangerous phenomenon, especially in the absence of leaders of tall stature,” said Prof. Ramu Manivannan of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Madras. “Today’s Tamil Nadu government is nothing but a franchisee of the Sasikala family,” he said.

It is true that the fast-paced political developments have caught even seasoned politicians and political observers off guard. This chaotic political environment, however, did not deter or discourage Sasikala and her cohorts from taking over the party despite the Supreme Court convicting her along with two of her relatives in the disproportionate assets case and getting her lodged in a Bengaluru prison.

Panneerselvam for her is canker in a rose. She believes that it was he who put paid to her chief ministerial aspirations for which she stayed behind Jayalalithaa for more than three decades with astounding perseverance. Hence, when she was about to realise her goal, the unlikely rebel played spoilsport. The delay by the Governor to invite her to form the government also came in the way of her aspirations. The Supreme Court verdict sealed her dreams.

For her, Panneerselvam is a traitor today and hence has to be politically obliterated. In fact, all her speeches and actions later showed how seriously she viewed the revolt of Panneerselvam. Before leaving for the Bengaluru prison to serve her four-year term of imprisonment, she made some swift moves such as getting Palaniswami, the current loyalist of the Mannargudi clan (as her family is popularly known), elected the party’s legislature party leader. “She could not be Chief Minister even for a single day. When you are not able to achieve what you wanted, you should not allow your rival to get what he wished. Sasikala did exactly that,” said Ramu Manivannan.

Even with Palaniswami she appeared to be ill at ease and insecure. Highly placed sources told Frontline that, in fact, the Mannargudi clan had preferred senior leader K.A. Sengottaiyan initially. “But since he refused to take up the assignment, it came to Palaniswami,” the source claimed. Panneerselvam’s “betrayal” had taught her to be extra vigilant in the minefield of Dravidian politics. Hence she took T.T.V. Dinakaran, her nephew, back into the party and appointed him the party’s deputy general secretary, a post that had remained vacant during Jayalalithaa’s reign. She bolstered it by readmitting another of her nephews, Dr S. Venkatesh, to keep a watch over any suspicious development both within the party and in the government.

“These two will act as the monitoring agencies of all in the party and in the government in her absence,” Ramu Manivannan pointed out. They, along with Sasikala, were expelled from the party by Jayalalithaa in 2011. Sasikala wrote a letter of apology and was later readmitted into Poes Garden.

MLAs at the resort

It was her idea, a party insider told Frontline, to herd the MLAs to the beach resort to keep them from “being poached” since many of the lawmakers were found to be “oscillating and vulnerable to the call of their conscience”. A string of phone calls from cadres and people of their respective constituencies had urged these MLAs to reject Sasikala’s leadership. Hence, they had their mobile phones confiscated. Realising that the dice was heavily loaded against her, Sasikala chose to stay at the resort for two days and interact with the MLAs, making them swear on Jayalalithaa’s portrait that they would remain loyal to her.

On complaints that MLAs were detained, a police team led by the Inspector General of Police (North Zone), N. Senthamarai Kannan, went to the resort to hold discussions with Sasikala, Ministers and MLAs. What transpired there remains unclear, with the police claiming that the MLAs were staying of their own volition. The police too went a step beyond their brief, clamping Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (empowering a magistrate to prohibit an assembly of more than four people in an area) in and around the resort though the media and political observers claimed that it was imposed mainly to keep journalists and the general public away from the resort, a blatant abuse of the law.

However, Madurai (South) MLA S.S. Saravanan escaped on February 13 in disguise while all others had decided to stay in the resort until the Governor invited Palaniswami to form the government. Saravanan alleged that the party MLAs “were being detained” at the resort and said he was insulted and humiliated physically and mentally during his five-day stay at Koovathur. He filed a “kidnap” case (February 15) against Sasikala at the Koovathur police station. The police had no other option but to register cases against her under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) with regard to abduction and wrongful confinement.

Before leaving for Bengaluru, Sasikala expelled a few leaders, including the party’s presidium chairman, E. Madhusudhanan, besides Panneerselvam and former Minister Pandiarajan from the party for revolting against her. The rival camp in turn expelled her and a few of her people from the party’s primary membership. She, however, strategically chose not to expel the other nine MLAs and MPs of the Panneerselvam camp. A senior politician said that it was a wise move. “She was hopeful of wooing these MLAs back to her flock once Palaniswami won the trust vote.” T.T.V. Dinakaran, the deputy general secretary of the party, also invited them to rejoin the parent party.

The government is surviving on the strength of 122 MLAs in the House of 234, just five more than the required number of 117 for a majority. The opposition is lurking around the corner. Hence a summary expulsion would be an ill-advised move is what she thinks. The AIADMK is the third largest party in Parliament today.

The election of Palaniswami as the legislature party leader, the herding of MLAs to the resort, the clever floor management in the Assembly on the day of the trust vote, all point to the fact that Sasikala is not inferior to any seasoned politician of today in political manoeuvring. She must have been adept at such shrewd manoeuvres even during Jayalalithaa’s regime. It has become clear now that it was she who had deftly operated from behind as an extraconstitutional authority. Whether she inherited the political acumen from her Akka (sister), as she called Jayalalithaa, or whether she guided Jayalalithaa from behind is to be studied and analysed further. A veteran Left leader had once said that it was she who was involved in the seat-sharing talks with leaders of allies during elections, and not her leader. In the current political manoeuvres, some suspect even the role of her husband, M. Natarajan.

Her deep resentment against the people and circumstances that thwarted her political ambitions was evident when she hit the grave of Jayalalithaa three times, muttering something that seemed like a vow, in full glare of the media. “I have seen many Panneerselvams,” she said at the site after issuing a warning that she would not tolerate dissent anymore. The Panneerselvam camp was stunned by her behaviour and the pace with which she moved ahead pulling surprise after surprise. She saw to it that the party remained under her thumb. The disgruntled elements were given many promises and posts. Reluctant senior politicians like Sengottaiyan were made to fall in line. And her takeover of the party was total.

Thus, Panneerselvam and his men, despite receiving popular support from across the State, could not garner support from an adequate number of MLAs. An overwhelming majority of them chose to throw in their lot with Sasikala for obvious reasons. “The government has four more years of power in the State. Can anyone fritter away the benefits that could accrue from power?” asked Ramu Manivannan. Panneerselvam and his men were crestfallen and their confidence hit an abysmal low at the course of events. The initial euphoria had evaporated.

“True. We have lost the first round in the battle. Now we have adequate time to redraw our strategies. First and foremost in our agenda is to take steps to put in place a strong legal and organisational mechanism to chart our future course of action,” said a former MLA, who is now in the Panneerselvam camp. It remains to be seen whether the group can challenge Sasikala and her people on the one hand and the DMK on the other before establishing a political identity of its own. As a first move, the Panneerselvam camp has taken the issue of Sasikala’s election as the party general secretary to the Election Commission of India, which has issued a notice to her seeking explanation.

Panneerselvam has yet another unenviable task before him. He has to convince those few in his camp, who might be having second thoughts about their wisdom in leaving the Sasikala camp. “Panneerselvam, a suave and composed loyalist of Jayalalithaa, is not an MGR, who was the darling of the masses. MGR’s fan clubs helped him enormously to counter the might of the Karunanidhi-led DMK. The State will soon go in for elections to the local bodies. It is an opportunity for Panneerselvam to mobilise popular support. Patience and perseverance, along with political acumen, are what Panneerselvam needs now to be moulded into a leader of people’s choice,” said Ravikumar, former MLA and senior leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi.

That the AIADMK is obviously intact, with Sasikala in the lead is an indisputable fact. But the Panneerselvam camp has sought to soften the blow it received by promising the people that “everything will change for the better”. The battle to retrieve “Amma’s party” from the clutches of a family, Panneerselvam announced, would begin shortly from amid the people. He would undertake a tour to meet the people “at their doorsteps”. He is a favoured man on the ground today. The people and the grass-roots cadre are angry at Sasikala and her MLAs. Many of the MLAs who voted for Palaniswami have apparently sought police protection while a few others are reluctant to go to their constituencies, fearing people’s wrath.

Panneerselvam adopted the age-old practice of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” by joining hands with Deepa Jayakumar, the niece of Jayalalithaa, who has been fighting Sasikala and her family since the death of her aunt. Panneerselvam looked serious about his mission—to dislodge the Sasikala family from the party. Both had initially decided to chalk out a joint plan to reclaim the AIADMK. But on February 24, Jayalalithaa’s 69th birth anniversary, Deepa surprisingly chose to tread her own path, disowning Panneerselvam. She announced that she did not wish to join any faction of the AIADMK and that she would rather strive to restore “Amma’s” legacy on her own. To achieve this end, she formed the MGR Amma Deepa Peravai.

Panneerselvam did not react to it. Participating at a commemorative function in Chennai, he said it was her choice though he had wished to work in tandem with her to retrieve the party from the clutches of one family. He also insisted that the cadres were with him. He pointed out that as Chief Minister he had initiated the processes to constitute an inquiry commission to probe Jayalalithaa’s death. “The present government has the moral responsibility to continue the process,” he said in a press conference.

If there is no ceasefire between the two warring groups, much fireworks are to be expected in Tamil Nadu politics soon. Palaniswami began his tenure as Chief Minister with a few promises, which Jayalalithaa had made during her election campaign but have little to do with the problems facing the State—serious drought, farmers’ deaths, acute drinking water scarcity, and mounting debt. The Chief Minister said that he announced these schemes with blessings from “Amma and Chinnamma”.

“It is a government run by those who combined politics, money and muscle power after harvesting the voters’ mandate. Now the people have not been involved. The leadership is in no way representing the people’s aspirations. A sense of direction and clarity of purpose are lacking,” said Ramu Manivannan.

That Sasikala is not too comfortable is evident from Dinakaran’s jarring presence in almost all important occasions. He could be seen prominently beside Palaniswami when the latter met the Governor after winning the trust vote. The next day, he dashed to Bengaluru to see his aunt. “The Tamil Nadu government is functioning on instructions from the Bengaluru prison,” said Stalin. He met President Pranab Mukherjee to seek his intervention in the matter.

The DMK has no regrets about its floor performance in the Assembly. It attempted to convey a strong message, notwithstanding the criticism it received for those unsavoury incidents, that it would be the party in the State to take head on “Sasikala and her cohorts who have usurped the AIADMK”.

It has served notice for a no-confidence motion against the Speaker, promising more political fireworks in the days to come.